Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: I have a friend who’s a Mormon. The reasons I never expected to have a Mormon friend were that I had never met one prior to coming to Japan, and my first impressions of them when we finally crossed paths were not good. The first pair I saw (and they seem to come mostly in pairs) were a couple of missionaries cycling slowly along in the standard garb of the fans of that particular church – black slacks, a neatly pressed white shirt, black tie and black bicycle helmet. They were simply riding bicycles but somehow their manner of doing so induced in me a great desire to throw stones and expletives.
Now, of course, that sheds me in a bad light as an intolerant sort of fellow who would take joy from seeing a religious person tumbling from a bicycle due to rock bouncing off their bonce but, honestly, I have no qualms with other people’s private religious beliefs. The Mormon missionaries, however, were not in Japan to follow their faith privately. They were there to preach it to others, and when they knocked on my door one weekday afternoon I can’t say I was overjoyed to see them.
After astutely observing that I wasn’t Japanese, they proceeded to nosily enquire as to my religious beliefs. I told them that was a private matter and they said, ‘That’s how we feel.’
‘Well, now that’s settled you can fuck off,’ I didn’t say. I should have, though, because they managed to keep talking and asked me, rather bizarrely, how I would feel if my mother died while I was living so far away. They said that what they meant was that having God in your life gave you great relief because if something were to happen to your loved ones, you would at least know, you would know, they were in a better place. So, apparently, if God kills my mum, as long as I have faith, she will get to heaven. I didn’t know it worked like that.
Anyway, they eventually went on their way to God-bother Japanese housewives and I thought little more about Mormons until I found myself working with one. His name was Steven and although I expected him to be a preachy tit, he proved to be intelligent, friendly, unfailingly polite and blessed with a good sense of humour. His father only had one wife, he rarely mentioned his religion and apart from giving me a copy of his chosen book of fairy stories one Christmas, he never tried to push his beliefs onto me. I was wrong, I thought. I was guilty of tarring all Mormons with the same brush based on my extremely limited encounters with them to date. Shame on me.
Because Steven and I got on quite well, he invited me and a fellow teacher, Chris, to play basketball with him and a few of his friends. I’m not much of a basketball player, but I had no other plans and Chris was keen, so we agreed to join them.
When we arrived at the gym Steven was already shooting a few hoops with friends from his church. He didn’t introduce us, so I took it upon myself to be friendly and introduce myself.
‘I’m Elder Patterson,’ said the first.
‘Alright, Elder,’ I said, thinking he just had one of those unusual names Americans sometimes give their children. Like Dervishly Wanktoff the Third Jr and the like.
‘And I’m Elder Simmons,’ said the second.
They were elders in their church, and another pair of missionaries in Japan on their compulsory two-year stint. Now I didn’t know what to call them, because neither had told me his first name, and saying, ‘Oi, Patterson, pass the ball,’ seemed a tad unfriendly to be used anywhere outside an English public school. They probably wouldn’t have minded, though, because when I said, ‘So you guys are friends with Steven?’ they looked at each other with some confusion, until I pointed out my colleague with whom they had come to the gym and they said, ‘Oh, you mean Watson!’
‘What odd fellows!’ I thought, before saying, ‘Right, shall we get a game going, then?’
The two Mormons said they didn’t think they could play a proper game.
‘Don’t be silly,’ I said. ‘I’m absolutely rubbish, but I’m happy to play a game.’
‘It’s not that,’ said Elder Patterson. ‘We’re not allowed to play on a full court.’
‘What?’ I asked.
‘While on our mission,’ said Elder Simmons. ‘We can play on a half court, though!’ he added with a smile, which had suddenly become quite creepy.
I told them to wait a minute and went to speak to Steven, wondering how best to tell him his friends were weirdo freaks.
‘Steven,’ I said, ‘your friends seem to be saying they can’t play on a full court, but they can play on a half court.’
‘Oh, yeah, I should have mentioned that,’ said Steven.
‘But that’s weird,’ I said. ‘That’s a rule of your church?’
‘Oh no,’ laughed Steven. ‘I can play on a full court. It’s just during these guys’ mission that they can only play on a half court!’ and then he looked at me as if that somehow explained the perfect logic of such a rule. I was sure I must have misunderstood, but I hadn’t; in this particular town, I kid you not, Mormon missionaries had an actual rule which said that they could play basketball on a half court but not a full one. This was not a rule of their church, just something which had to be obeyed during the missionary period.
I never did find out what reasoning could possibly be behind such utter nonsense, and Steven and I continued to be quite friendly (until he reads this, that is). And try as I might, I can’t help but feel that it is Steven who is the odd one out for being normal and likeable. Because I met a few more of his friends and, well, let’s just say I now like to keep a couple of loose stones in my bag whenever I go out for a stroll. Just in case.